CAIRO: It was a victory that was a long time coming. The shrill cries of ecstatic women filled the air as farmers made their way to the Journalists Syndicate Monday evening to celebrate the final verdict of a four-year-long battle.
Before an audience of press, lawyers, activists and farmers, Nadir Fargani chaired a whistle stop tour of congratulatory speeches punctuated by impassioned applause, with the loudest reserved for bright young lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz Salama.
“After four years in a struggle against the feudalists, officers, police and the army, finally we have won, said Abdel Aziz Salama. “These people may be simple, but they are noble. At every point people were afraid to talk, but each woman farmer stepped up to testify.
Eighteen farmers were ruled innocent on June 16, 2008, before Damanhour State Security Court. The accused were charged with inciting violence and congregating in public places, an act rendered illegal under emergency law.
Sarando’s traumatic journey through the meandering country roads to the daunting edifices of court buildings began in 2005, when landowner and executive Salah Nawwar began to take measures to forcibly evict farmers from their land.
According to reports by Human Rights Watch, Nawwar, aided by now notorious Damanhour police chief Mohamed Ammar, used brutal tactics to wrest the land from farmers, who had acquired the land through the 1950s land reform program.
After a series of sporadic raids beginning from January 2005, Nawwar set about taking more extreme measures. On March 4, 2005, tractors and gasoline trucks began to burn crops. A furious backlash from livelihood-deprived farmers ensued, and one henchman, Alaa Mohamed Nawwar, was killed during the chaos.
Security services retaliated by mounting attacks on Sarando, conducting mass arrests, smashing windows and breaking down doors in an attempt to find the culprit.
On March 13, 2005, Nefisa El-Marakby was arrested. After spending one night in prison, she returned severely psychologically disturbed. A day later she was admitted to hospital where she died, reportedly “of shock. It was strongly suspected that she was subjected to severe mental and sexual abuse. Other women were also subjected to sexual abuse in various forms, according to the testimony of other farmers.
Yet despite the intervention of human rights groups, including international Human Rights Watch, no autopsy was performed on the body. Days later, the prosecutor would sweep the matter aside, precluding its transfer before the preliminary court and ruling in favor of Salah Nawwar.
Nefisa’s family was arrested as the prosecutor delivered his verdict. Nefisa’s family and other residents, instead of being compensated, were accused of violence.
Farmers expressed their relief at the not-guilty verdict, which was, according to El-Badeel newspaper, under threat of being reverted by President Hosni Mubarak.
“I am overjoyed, said Kawkab Abdel Moneim, who has recently suffered an arson attack on her farmland. “We want to erect a statue of Mohamed Abdel Aziz in Sarando. All the lawyers involved in the case have lived through the trauma with us, and we thank them for it dearly.
“This is the fifth time they have been found not-guilty, lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz Salama told Daily News Egypt.
Farmers have been tried in security courts and have previously been found not guilty. According to documents exhibited by El-Badeel newspaper which have yet to be verified, President Mubarak refused to validate the not guilty verdict delivered on March 19, 2007.
The 27 originally accused were consequently subjected to a re-trial before a second state security court. Two men have been sentenced to 15 years, and the seven remaining will be re-tried after failing to attend the recent hearing.
However, whilst Sarando celebrates, the ‘land gang’ specter remains thick on the horizon.
Abdel Aziz’s stirring words “not one farmer has been evicted from his land in Sarando , however, could not be applied to other farming communities.
According to Bashir Saqr – who declined an invitation to speak at the conference on the grounds that not enough action is being taken to help the farmers – prospective landowners, heeding the lesson of Sarando’s farmers’ hefty counter-attack, are now splitting up land into smaller portions to make the task of ‘taking control’ more easily manageable.
“The police came and burned our crops before evicting us from the land, one farmer from hamlet Ezbet El-Baroudi in Damanhour, told Daily News Egypt. “We were growing watermelons and other vegetables, and waiting for the harvest, but now they have burnt everything. Despite visits from Human Rights groups and journalists, this has not stopped the final eviction.
Farmers from neighboring farm, Ezbet Muharram, exhibited various injuries received as they defended land from henchmen of local landowner Badri Abu Khiyar, who could not be reached for comment. Farmers had been forced to sign false contracts rendering them ‘tenants’, not small landowners, their status according to Egyptian law.
Sayyed El-Makawi was held for three days in Rahmaniya police station. He was beaten on his torso and his wrists bear the scars of handcuffs.
“I was the only one who refused to sign the papers. I know my rights; they are forbidden to throw me off the land or harass me, and I have a court order from 2001 to prove it. This is a very clear breach of the law, he said.